David Hughes was a big supporter of downtown Kansas City’s increasingly vibrant arts, entertainment and bar scene when he moved five years ago to a condo at Ninth and Baltimore streets.
But he didn’t expect to have blasting band and karaoke music from a bar a block away constantly interrupting his sleep after midnight.
“It seemed crazy loud,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that was legal to be that loud.”
The Kansas City Health Department took numerous noise readings from John’s Big Deck at 928 Wyandotte St., and after years of ineffective enforcement efforts was finally able to get the business last year to contain the noise.
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Addressing those types of complaints should be easier in the future under a new noise ordinance that will be considered by the City Council.
The changes are timely because downtown is becoming more of a mixed community, with residential buildings and entertainment venues right nearby. The same situation exists in Waldo, Brookside and elsewhere, and the city is trying to balance the desires of residents and businesses.
The ordinance establishes limits and more precise sound measurements for frequencies like the low bass thumping from rock bands that can spread past an establishment’s property and infuriate nearby residents.
“It’s to fix what we’ve had trouble enforcing before,” said Health Department Deputy Director Bert Malone. “To be able to enforce it in a way that protects the rights of residents, but also protects the rights of an individual to have entertainment.”
Hughes and others said an updated noise law would be welcome news at a time when downtown’s residential population is soaring.
“I’ve heard more and more of these rooftop bars want to open up, and the more that happens the more noise there will be,” said Rick Powell, president of the Union Carbide Condos, where Hughes lives.
Powell emphasized that Union Carbide Condos has excellent acoustical controls that successfully block out noise. But Hughes’ unit could pick up bar noise when his windows were open in spring and fall, and other nearby condo buildings had the same problem.
Sean O’Byrne, vice president of the Downtown Council, said a new noise ordinance will help, but adds that there will always be a delicate balancing act as downtown grows and evolves with new lofts.
“Those were formerly office buildings that had no nightlife,” he said. “Now we’re evolving into the 24-hour city.”
It’s true in Waldo, says longtime resident Maureen Hardy, who lives near a block where nearly a dozen bars have opened in the past five years. Hardy said most bar owners work well with the residents, but some don’t.
“The better ordinance would put a little scare into them,” she said.
The Health Department currently gets 50 to 60 noise complaints annually, Malone said, and the vast majority are resolved through warning letters and negotiation, rather than tickets and fines. But while those are not the most frequent complaints that the department deals with, he said, they can be the most intense.
The city’s smoking ordinance may be a factor in rising noise complaints, Malone said. That’s because the smoking ban, which affected bars and restaurants beginning in June 2008, pushed many patrons outdoors. The music followed them onto outdoor decks and patios.
The new noise law is especially needed because the city’s zoning law changed a few years ago, with different designations for areas that include residential and commercial uses.
But it will also address changes in sound-monitoring technology, Malone said, to pick up different frequencies and the low bass tones that can carry and are not recognized in the current ordinance. The department will buy new equipment and train its field staff of about 15 people to do the measurements. Police also help with late-night enforcement.
Daytime noise levels apply from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and nightime noise levels apply after 10 p.m., every day of the week.
Malone said that, in the case of John’s Big Deck, the department checked out complaints in 2011 and 2012, but the readings didn’t exceed the law’s levels to provide a confirmed violation until 2013. The business was fined in late 2013 and then the department met with the owner in 2014.
At that point, Malone said, the business changed owners and shut down for a time. Since it has reopened, there have been no further complaints.
A call to John’s Big Deck management for comment was not returned.
Malone said that under the new noise ordinance, it would likely be easier to get a reading that would be a violation to address neighbors’ concerns.
In Waldo, Hardy said the neighborhood had a problem with the proliferation of bars on Wornall Road and Broadway. The complaints reached a crescendo about two years ago, which prompted the Ward Parkway Homes Association to call a meeting. Most bar owners showed up, Hardy said, but a few did not.
Hardy said most bar owners, such as Chris Lewellen, co-owner of The Well Bar, Grill and Rooftop, have worked well with the neighborhood, including providing their home phone numbers to take calls about late-night problems. She said a few establishments, which she declined to name, continue to project annoying, booming bass sounds late at the night, when they open their windows and garage doors to the outdoors.
Malone said the Health Department is aware of the problem businesses and will continue to monitor them, especially after the new noise law is adopted.
Lewellen of The Well said his establishment spent several thousand dollars to hire a sound technician and address the noise concerns. It removed a subwoofer loudspeaker on the roof and replaced eight speakers with 16, to spread out and lower the noise level. It keeps all the live music inside and closes all garage doors at 10 p.m.
“It still gives our diners that cool vibe experience with the music but it doesn’t go beyond maybe several feet outside our doors,” Lewellen said.
Malone said some apartment owners, such as those near 18th and Vine streets, pro-actively warn potential residents that they may experience late-night jazz and blues sounds. Apartment leases point out the resident is choosing to live above a jazz club, for example. And residents say they take that in stride.
“It’s one of the reasons we are attracted to where we live,” said Councilman Jermaine Reed, who lives not far from 18th and Vine.
The new noise ordinance, which is subject to change when it reaches the City Council, also would clarify some rules pertaining to things like portable sound systems and vehicle stereos. It states that loud music from vehicles shall not be plainly audible from a distance of 50 feet between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. or from 25 feet at night.
Violations will be subject to fines between $50 and $1,000, in accordance with other city municipal laws.
The noise ordinance certainly will not address everything. It exempts construction noise, for example, which Malone said has always been the case. Still, the Health Department tries to intervene with contractors when construction noise becomes overpowering for residents.
He hopes the new law, which will be before the City Council’s neighborhoods and housing committee in the next few weeks, makes it easier and clearer for both businesses and residents.
“We’re not saying you can’t make noise, you can’t have fun, but you have to do it within reason,” he said.